Tag Archives: the origin of old English sayings

Historical truths behind English sayings II

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You can read the first part to this series here.

According to one of those more educational DSTV adverts, the average person has a vocabulary of 10 000 words – 15 000 if you’re really smart. It also says that Shakespeare takes the cake with a vocab of 29 000 words. Exclamation!

The playwright was also the founder of a copious amount of English phrases and gives new meaning to what it means to become famous after you die. Quite ironic for a dramatist I thought.

On that note I thought I would do a little tribute post to the man we were all forced to study in High school. We may have hated him back then, but now we should appreciate his contribution to the English language.

So, at one fell swoop here are the origins of some of Shakespeare’s more commonly used phrases:

1. As dead as a doornailA dead looking doornail
My brother and I used to use this one quite a lot when we were young. I’m not entirely sure why, but I recall him using it adaptively to call me “as dumb as a doornail.” Anyway, the meaning behind this one is quite clear.

Doornails are the large-headed studs that were used in earlier times (14th century) to strengthen doors. Fitting doornails involved hammering them through and bending over the protruding bit. The ‘deadness’ refers to the un-usable-ness of inanimate objects, which is what the doornail became after a good hammering.

2. Fight fire with fire
Fire-break gone pear-shapedWe use this one today to refer to attacking someone with the same means that the attackers employ – giving them a “taste of their own medicine” to use another phrase. Shakespeare did use this phrase in King John, but it’s more modern origin actually has a more literal meaning.

It was coined by 19th century US settlers and referred to actual fire-fighting. The settlers would guard themselves against grass or forest fires by deliberately lighting smaller, controllable ‘back-fires’ – a practise still done today except we now call them ‘fire-breaks.’

However, the Settlers’ fire-breaks were often unsuccessful and actually made matters worse for them and their highly flammable houses. It is said that this is where the phrase “to backfire” (i.e. to unexpectedly go wrong) originates.

3. In a pickle
Pickled goodnessThe origin of “being in a pickle” (i.e. a tight spot) does seem to allude to being in the actual vinegary pickling liquid what we find gherkins in today. Supposedly it would be difficult to escape if you ever found yourself in a jar of gherkins.

However, the phrase does have a more literal sense, which goes back to England’s greatest naval hero Admiral Nelson – who was literally picked in a barrel of brandy after a musket ball took him out.

4. Tapping the Admiral
The above story makes reference to a related phrase I know of but am not sure whether it’s an urban myth or not.

Lord Admiral NelsonAlthough the majority of sailors who died at sea were simply thrown overboard, seamen of higher rank (such as the captain, his first mate and admirals) were preserved in barrels of brandy.

After several months at sea, several members of the crew would discreetly sip away at the brandy with the bodies in them, using tubes of pasta as straws – a saying that became known as “tapping the admiral.” When ships finally reached the shore the cargo crew would often find these barrel-coffins completely empty. Yummy.

5. Makes your hair stand on end
A Freaked out porcupineShakespeare’s phrases and writing conjured up vivid imagery in the minds of the now well-deceased English people, and continues to have a grand affect on our imaginations today. Some literary exerts posit that no image better illustrates the sensation of one’s hair standing on end than a fretful porcupine.

The phrase is rather literal however, and refers to the actual effect of one’s hair (especially on the back of the neck) standing on end due to the skin contracting as a result of cold or fear. Chilling.

6. Wear your heart on your sleeve
This one's for you baby!The meaning of wearing your heart on your sleeve is to display your emotions openly. You might remember this one from Shakespeare’s masterpiece Othello.

This rather strange phrase is said to derive from a middle-aged custom of knights wearing the colours of the lady they were supporting during jousting matches. They would wear a cloth or ribbon in the colour of their fair maiden around their arms before galloping towards impending pain or victory.

7. Wild goose chase
The first use of “a wild goose chase” is referenced in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (1592) whereby Romeo is keen to embark on a somewhat hopeless quest. We all know how that one ended.

Wild geese flying formationThe literal meaning that we infer from the phase today remains the same, however, its origin is more commonly thought to derive from the fact that wild geese are rather difficult to catch.

Yet there is an earlier, more technical meaning behind this phrase which refers to horse racing rather than the hunting of wild geese. A ‘wild goose chase’ was a chase in which horses followed a lead horse at a set distance, mimicking wild geese flying in formation. This use of the phrase became popularised 10 years after Shakespeare kicked the bucket.

Although the respected man is now gone his name and this tribute post shall live on forever. You can read about the origins of some other popular English sayings in the first series of this post linked below.

Related posts:
Friday the 13th superstititions
Historical truths behind English saying I

Historical truths behind English sayings

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Do you ever use sayings such as “saved by the bell” or hear your grandmother squawk something like, “Heavens, it raining cats and dogs outside!” A lot of people still do yet have no idea where such phrases originate from.

I got a little history lesson the other day which explained the dark truth behind some of these popular figures of speech. I thought I’d share them with those of you who are interested in the English language. Slip them into conversation next time you’re at the pub, or tell granny what she’s actually referring to.

1. Why brides carry a bouquet at weddings:It was also believed that flowers would help ward off the plague
England back in the day was a smelly place to live. Most people only bathed once a year (usually in May). Thus most people got married in June because their BO (body odour) wasn’t too bad one month down the line. However, they were starting to smell, so brides carried a bouquet of flowers to hide any stench.

Hence the custom today of carrying a bouquet when getting married.

2. “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater!”
Please don't throw me away!Baths consisted of a big tub filled with hot water. The man of the house had first dibs on the nice clean water, then all the other sons and men, then the women and finally the children. Last to be bathed were the babies. By then the water was so dirty you could actually lose someone in it.

Hence the saying, “don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.”ouch

3. “The rule of thumb”
Women had it pretty tough in the old English days. Husbands were allowed to beat their wives by law for anything that they considered to be disobedient. The only condition was the phrase “rule of thumb” (derived from an old English law), which stated that you couldn’t beat your wife with anything thicker than your thumb.

4. “It’s raining cats and dogs”
mmrff grrr hmphThe majority of medieval Brits lived in hovels that had thatched roofs with no wood underneath. It was the only place for animals to get warm, so all the cats and other small animals (mice, bugs) lived in the roof. When it rained it became slippery and sometimes the animals would slip off the roof.

Hence the saying “it’s raining cats and dogs.”

5. Why the poor were “dirt poor”Please sir, can I have some more?
There was nothing to stop things from falling into the house. Besides having bugs, animal droppings and other crap fall from the roof the floors were dirt. Only the wealthy had something other than dirt such as thresh (straw) which was kept in place using wooden planks (hence the saying “threshold”). But for the poor it was plain dirt.

Hence the saying “dirt poor.”

6. “Bringing home the bacon”
The dirt poor mostly ate vegetables that they would stew and re-stew in a large cauldron over the fire. Often leftovers would remain in Bringing home the baconthe pot for days on end. However, on special days they would sometimes obtain pork, and when visitors came over they would hang up their bacon to show off. It was a sign of wealth that a man could “bring home the bacon.” They would cut off a little to share with guests and would all sit around on their dirt floors and “chew the fat.”

7. Food for thought… or possible death

  • Those with a little money had plates made of pewter. Food with a high acid content caused some of the lead to leach into the food, causing lead poisoning and often death. This happened most often with tomatoes, so for the next 400 years or so, tomatoes were considered poisonous.Bread
  • Bread was divided according to status. Workers got the burnt bottom of the loaf, the family got the middle, and guests got the top, or “upper crust.”
  • Lead cups were used to drink ale or whisky. The combination would sometimes knock the imbibers right out for a couple of days. Someone walking along the road would take them for dead and prepare them for burial. They were laid out on the kitchen table for a couple of days and the family would gather around and eat and drink, or chew the fat, and wait and see if the poor sod would wake up.

Hence the custom of holding a “wake.”

8. “Saved by the bell”
This is a reference to boxing and quite literally means to be saved from a beating by the bell that signals the end of a boxing round. The saying does not originate from people being buried alive. However, this was not an uncommon occurance, and several people were so afraid of this happening to them, that they took measures against it – such as by tying a bell connected to a rope around their hands. Here’s how the urban myth goes:

England is small – very small relative to the huge population at the time. But the death toll was high and gravediggers started running out of places to bury people. So they would dig up old coffins, take the bones to a “bone-house”, and reuse the graves.

I'm not dead!!When reopening these coffins, 1 out of 25 were found to have scratch marks on the inside, meaning 1 in 25 people had been buried alive. To prevent this from happening they would tie a string on the wrist of the corpse, lead it through the coffin and up through the ground, and tie it to a bell. Someone would have to sit out in the graveyard all night (the “graveyard shift”) to listen for the bell.

Thus, any unfortunate drunks could be “saved by the bell!”

  • If you know the origin of any other sayings please share them below and help spread a little knowledge!

Related posts:
Friday the 13th superstitions
Historical truths behind English sayings II